PICTORIAL STORY

July 3, 2020

SOCIALLY DISTANCED

BEING SOCIAL IN TIMES OF SOCIAL DISTANCING

Photography by Stefan Hellweger
Words by Karin Svadlenak Gomez

Stefan Hellweger is a photographer from Munich with a mission: documenting life in his city. The Münchner Tafel is a Munich food bank that provides food to 20,000 low-income people every week. During the weeks of Covid-19 prevention measures, operations had to be adapted to the new requirements. It was during that time that Stefan set out to document what that means for the disadvantaged and the many volunteers at the Münchner Tafel. He recorded it in his photo series "Being social in times of social distancing". His photos are close-up and honest and tell a real story.

The global Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed how and when people interact with each other. This has had repercussions on the way life in cities is organised, and the way just about all institutions (businesses, hospitals, care homes, cultural institutions, charitable organizations, etc.) go about their business. It has also had a strong visual impact on the cityscape. Who would have thought a few months ago that face masks - in European cities previously reserved to Asian tourists - would become ubiquitous, or that we would do our exercise classes at home via online platforms?

THE MUNICH FOOD BANK MÜNCHNER TAFEL

In 2019 the Münchner Tafel had it's 25th anniversary. Stefan is a member of the Munich Street Collective, a group of currently 10 photographers, whose passion is documenting contemporary history in public spaces - to capture life in Munich as an artistic historic document for the future. Unlike many purely virtual collectives on Instagram, the members of this collective also organise street photography walks and occasionally analog exhibitions. One of their members had connections to the Münchner Tafel, and the collective came up with the idea of documenting the charity's important work. After months of shooting they organised a joint exhibition at Munich's art centre, Gasteig, which was very well received and much to the ten photographers' joy resulted in a significant increase of donations. So the current reportage is Stefan's second time to be involved in a documentary about the Münchner Tafel.

Every Munich resident on welfare assistance can apply for an authorisation card to visit one of the 27 branches of the Münchner Tafel. The goal of the food bank is to make the lives of people living from social security a little bit easier by providing food. That way they can spend the little money they have for other purposes. For homeless people there are other organisations specialised in providing assistance.

The Munich Food Bank usually has different delivery points around town, but because of the pandemic containment measures, all groceries were being distributed from the wholesale market in Sendling for several weeks.

The volunteers and the guests of the Münchner Tafel now all have to keep a distance of at least two metres. “Unlike the supermarkets I shop at, this food bank was being checked for regulation compliance every day!”, says Stefan. “So they took this really seriously.”

FROM OLD TO YOUNG

The corona crisis has also completely changed the composition of the volunteer team: where previously it was mostly retired people who joined the effort to provide food for the needy, it was now mostly young people (freed up from their usual occupations by Corona). They would help set up the tables, carry boxes, clean up, hand out food, and sometimes lend an ear to one of the guests wanting to chat.

For some of the people who visit the food bank, it is not only a way to get food, it is also a place where they can meet other people, where they can have a conversation without fear that they will be judged.

Although all guests at the Münchner Tafel receive a minimum income from the German government, they still live below subsistence level. What this means is that after basic needs are met, they often have nothing left to enjoy a bit of entertainment - a movie maybe, or a visit to a coffee shop. Coming to the food bank helps fill that gap.

The Münchner Tafel is now returning to most of its 27 locations, except where, because of a lack of space or for other reasons, it is not possible to comply with strict corona regulations. Such locations will continue their food distribution at the western gate of the wholesale market.

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